Casino and entertainment giant MGM Resorts International is pitching a $1 billion gambling complex for downtown Atlanta that backers say would funnel tens of millions of dollars into the HOPE scholarship. But first it would have to overcome stiff opposition in the General Assembly and the governor’s office.
MGM’s proposal would create 3,500 jobs and offer Las Vegas-style casino gambling, as opposed to past ideas involving video slot machines, said state Rep. Ron Stephens, who chairs the House’s economic development committee. He called it the “Cadillac” of casino projects.
“I’ve seen what they want to do, and it’s going to blow your mind,” said Stephens, R-Savannah. “It’s massive in its size and its elegance. This is a game-changer. I’m looking for a win-win-win and this is it.”
An MGM Resorts spokesman confirmed the company’s interest in Atlanta but said its analysis in “the very preliminary stages.” The company started scouting Atlanta in recent months.
The project would include a luxury hotel, entertainment venue, a gaming floor and other amenities.
“It’s a beautiful market,” MGM spokesman Clark Dumont said, citing access, demographics and other factors.
A group he declined to identify approached MGM Resorts about Atlanta after a proposed constitutional amendment was filed in March that could lead to local referenda to approve casinos, he said.
“We typically don’t go into an area in which we are not invited into,” Dumont said.
MGM operates high-profile resorts such as MGM Grand, the Bellagio and Aria in Las Vegas, and Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss.
Multiple business leaders and other political operatives have been briefed on the proposal.
Two people with knowledge of the negotiations said the Nevada-based firm is looking at locations near the Georgia World Congress Center, possibly at the site of the soon-to-be demolished Georgia Dome or the nearby tangle of parking lots and railroad ties known as the Gulch.
The proposal is the latest in a long line of gambling projects floated in Georgia. A recent effort to build a casino resort in DeKalb County was swiftly shot down, as were past proposals to build casinos in Underground Atlanta and at a Gwinnett County manufacturing site.
Stephens and other supporters hope new momentum is building for legislation he filed that would pave the way for casino gambling, and MGM has hired five lobbyists to advocate on its behalf.
The bill would give local governments the option of asking voters whether to allow a casino to be built. Any project also would require approval of the state lottery board, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Aides to the governor, who has consistently opposed casino gambling, have been briefed on the project. But Chris Riley, the governor’s top aide, suggested its chances are slim.
“I doubt it will happen before Jan. 10, 2019,” he said, referring to the date of the next governor’s inauguration.
Expanded gambling also could face tough opposition from voters. The Georgia Christian Coalition, for one, holds that gambling is “destructive to individual lives, families, businesses and society as a whole.”
Still, metro Atlanta offers a tempting target to the casino industry, which is looking to expand and diversify after the recession, said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Sun Belt markets are growing again.
Atlanta is among the largest metro areas in the country without Vegas-style gambling, and the city also boasts the world’s busiest airport and one of the country’s biggest convention industries.
Dumont said the size of a possible resort hasn’t been determined, but MGM Resorts would not build in Georgia without legalized casino gambling.
Other than so-called “grey machines” in gas stations around the state, gambling is limited the state to the Georgia Lottery, which funds education.
But the drum beat to expand gambling in Georgia has followed HOPE’s inability to keep up with scholarship demand. Though the lottery brings in record revenues seemingly every year, state lawmakers have had to cut how much money goes to qualified university and technical college students to keep the program solvent. The scholarship once paid full in-state tuition to public colleges and technical colleges, but it no longer does for most students.
Stephens’ proposal is for a constitutional amendment to allow local votes on expanded gambling. It would require a two-thirds vote from legislators but no signature from Deal, although he would have to sign enabling legislation to set up the mechanisms for local votes on projects. Then voters would have to approve the amendment.
“I know there’s a whole lot of obstacles in its way. But this would be bigger than the Volvo deal, and not one dime of public money,” Stephens said, referring to the automaker’s recent decision to pick South Carolina over Georgia for its first U.S. plant. “They don’t want a dime of incentives, they just want to come.”
There have been recent signs that opposition in the Georgia Legislature to expanded gambling is softening.
A narrow majority of Georgia Republicans in July 2012 voted in a non-binding referendum to support casino gambling to fund education. Legislation to legalize horse racing narrowly passed a Senate committee in March, though it failed to reach a full vote.
Deal has long opposed the idea, though he has approved online lottery sales and signed legislation in 2013 that allows more coin-operated gambling machines across Georgia.
But any attempt to allow casino gambling is bound to attract criticism from opponents who associated it with social ills.
“There are a lot of social consequences for people who can’t afford to spend their income on what they can’t afford,” said state Sen. Tommie Williams, R- Lyons. “And I can’t support that.”